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Monads and the Cosmic Jigsaw Factory

My scientist friend—his name’s Adam but he spells it “Atom”— calls me about the latest breakthrough. He says physicists have discovered a new subatomic particle. His voice is urgent, almost cracking.


I say, “I’m tired of spheres. Tell me this new particle is noodle-shaped.”


He says, “Monads, they’re called monads. They don’t have a shape, but they might have a soul.”


I’m no conspiracy theorist. Still, sometimes I get the suspicion that the scientific community is really a secret society of comedians who get a kick—a 2,500 year-old kick—out of human credulity.


Atom is out of breath. He says he has to go, but he’ll keep me updated. He makes it sound like he’s right there, in the midst of the action, his hands touching the lever of a particle accelerator, his eyes obscured by fancy goggles. I use the word “scientist” somewhat liberally. Atom teaches AP Physics at a charter school.


When my wife and I were still doing marriage counseling (a year before our divorce), Atom was full of suggestions. He kept championing the need for proximity. He’d call me up and say, “Are you close? I mean, you know, close?” He’d suggest that my wife and I take a sample of each other’s blood and put the samples under a compound microscope, and then—as husband and wife—spend time marveling at the shifting landscape within, how each drop of our blood was a unique eruption of lentil-shaped lava.


On some level, I think he was right. My wife and I were failing because we had run out of topography.


The next day, Atom calls up again. This time, I stop him mid-sentence and say, “Soul? I think I misheard you yesterday—did you say monads have souls?”


He says, “It’s complicated. At the very least, monads have perception. Not to mention appetite


“Jesus, they get hungry?”


“More like inclination. Or desire. They long.”


There’s a lull on the phone. On Atom’s end of the receiver, I can hear clinking glasses and a droning electronic voice, as if Atom’s at happy hour with Stephen Hawking.


I say, “Look, it just doesn’t sound very, uh, scientific—”




“All these metaphors.”


“Actually, at the subatomic level, nonidentity is the norm. Nothing is what it seems, and thus metaphors are the most accurate form of language we physicists have at our disposal—”


Atom’s voice is drowned out by cheering, even wild abandon. Wherever he is, it sounds like a team has just scored.


I say, “So, uh, what do they want?”


Atom says, “Who?”






To be fair, it’s not just Atom who’s monad-struck. All the media outlets—NPR, CNN, FOX, even ESPN—can’t get enough. Monads this, monads that. Despite being infinitesimal, monads are bigger than sliced bread. The title of one article reads, “Sentient Particle Added to Our Subatomic Zoo!” Oddly, it’s not the first time I’ve heard the whole zoo analogy. After my wife and I split, Atom wouldn’t shut up about quarks and leptons and gluons and all those other subatomic “animals” that escaped from the primordial zoo.


Atom said, “The Big Bang was the first prison break.”


I said, “You’re mixing your metaphors.”


He said, “Imagine how many inmates we’ve yet to tag.”


It dawned on me later that Atom was talking about women. Other women. Soul-bonding with particles that were not my wife.


Atom keeps calling. Sometimes I wonder if I’m Atom’s only friend. He strikes me as the kind of person who believes friendship is monogamous.


He says, “The perception of monads is directed inward, not outward.”


I say, “Omniscience—I don’t understand—how does a particle seek omniscience?”


“Monads are navel-gazers. Each monad is like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle: its own existence belies the contours of its neighbors. Thus in studying its own being, each monad is in fact intuiting its cosmic neighborhood.”


Atom goes on to describe how monads understand the world concentrically. Monads reason from self to neighborhood to neighborhood’s neighborhood, etcetera.


It all sounds a bit alarming. Like an invasion. Minus the green humanoids with laser beams.


I rub my eyes into the wee hours of the night. Everything is out of focus except negative space. A hat suggests a head. An outlet, a plug. Contours become clues. I imagine my body as one gangly, oversized monad: it too is a jigsaw piece with a shape that suggests a connection. What connection? I only know the answers that are incorrect. All the hands I thought my hands fit into.


You get this sinking feeling when you turn forty—alone forty, divorced forty, table-for-one forty—you get this sinking feeling that the cosmic jigsaw factory made a mistake. A manufacturing error. Honestly, I think Atom knows this feeling all too well. I think it’s why he won’t stop calling. The cosmic jigsaw factory expresses its deepest apologies. No one’s perfect, it says. But the truth is, well, how to put it? Your piece was shrink-wrapped in the wrong box.


Andrew Gretes

Andrew Gretes is the author of How to Dispose of Dead Elephants (Sandstone Press, 2014). His fiction has appeared in Witness, Grist, Pleiades, and other journals.